The Elements of Fucking Style: A fucking book review

In order to make this review as useful as possible, I excavated the library for my yellowed copy of Strunk and White, hereafter referred to as S&W for brevity. (I mistyped that “Stunk” and debated leaving it for posterity.)

Baker and Hansen have written a fucking brilliant parody of the well-known (one might even say “hoary”) guide to writing, The Elements of Style. This is seriously important shit, people. It’s not just a parody. It’s a useful guide, perhaps even more useful than the original.

Let’s compare the Tables of Contents first, shall we?

S&W includes an introduction, Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, An Approach to Style, and an index.

B&H includes an introduction, Rules That Even Foreigners Should Know, On Writing Like an Adult, Punctuation, Form, and a Few Matters of Etiquette, Goddamn, You’re Good (a Good-Bye), Words Your (sic) Bound to Fuck Up, a Glossary of Terms You Don’t Understand, and a Note. (The Note was, for me, worth the price of purchase.)

A Note of My Own: I’m going to refer to the parody as B&H. The majority of people in my acquaintance refer to The Elements of Style as “Strunk and White,” so I’m carrying that to the logical next step. While I appreciate the parody title, it’s just easier to call it “B&H” in keeping with fucking tradition. Bite me.

Let’s compare a couple of entries head to head. B&H does a great job of aping the structure of S&W, right down to the sub headings. For example: S&W gives us, in the first section, the sixth point: “Do not break sentences in two.” In B&H this becomes: “All I’ve got in this world are my sentences and my balls, and I don’t break ‘em for nobody.”

These sections are, of course, about the misuse of periods where commas should appear. The original provides us with this example: “I met them on a Cunard liner many years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.”

B&H, however, is far more memorable. “I met him at Conifer Park a few summers ago. Right after my stint in rehab.” (Perhaps this example is part of why Courtney Love says she finished this book. Just a thought, mind you.)

Another comparison: point 9. S&W tells us “The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.” B&H says “Don’t fuck up the coordination of number between subject and verb.”

See, it’s all about accessibility. The advice is no less useful, and far more accessible, in the parody. “Use the proper case of pronoun” becomes “Pronouns are a real bitch.” (We all know that. Baker and Hansen PUT IT IN FUCKING BLACK AND WHITE.)

B&H retains some of the prescriptive qualities of the original, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not about spitting in the face of tradition. It’s about making that tradition relevant to the modern fucking audience, see? (Did you hear that in Edward G. Robinson’s voice? I totally typed that in Edward G. Robinson’s voice.) “A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject” becomes “You talkin’ to me?” The example for this one: “Fleeing from the liquor store, he saw the owner with a shotgun in his hands.” “He” is fleeing. If you want to say the owner is fleeing, you need to move that phrase: “He saw the owner with a shotgun in his hands, fleeing the store.”

It’s not just about the language. Sure, the text is littered with fucks and shits and assholes and so on. But more importantly, the parody expands on the original in places where expansion is a good idea. Take the first section in Part II (Elementary Principles of Composition, or On Writing Like an Adult). S&W says “Choose a suitable design and hold to it,” and then in two paragraphs we’re supposed to have learned what we need to know. I call BULLSHIT. B&H takes that section and gives us SEVEN paragraphs, including an exhortation to watch “Adaptation” if you haven’t already seen it. (I concur. You should see it.) For me, this bit is one of the most important: “The words that flow out on the page are your thoughts, your feelings, and your beliefs. The important step is not to censor what you say, but to make a decision to order the way in which your information is presented.” There’s NOTHING like that in S&W. Not a fucking thing that even comes close. And that’s IMPORTANT SHIT right there.

I’ll close with one more direct comparison. We all know (don’t we? I think we do) the famous advice “Omit needless words.”

B&H tell us: “In the poker game of life, needless words are the fucking rake.” Fuck around with needless words and you lose, you poor bastard. The reader’s gonna go elsewhere.

I said I’d close. I lied.

Don’t let the title of section IV fool you. It SAYS it’s a good-bye, but it’s only the middle of the book. The last half holds delightful presentations of problem words and phrases and a glossary.  Here’s how they help you remember the difference between e.g (for example) and i.e. (in other words): “She liked being fucked in every way possible, e.g., missionary, the jackhammer, inverted lotus, and didn’t care who was fucking her. / Dad is going to do what he does best, i.e., get piss drunk.” (Honestly? I’d tweak that first example: “She didn’t care who was fucking her and liked being fucked in every way possible, e.g., missionary . . .”)

And those terms you don’t understand? That’s all of ‘em. Every term in the book, from Abbreviation to Word. (Yeah. WORD. “What’s another word for word? Whenever you hear someone ask that just say ‘term’ and then tell them to get the fuck out. A word is the smallest unit of a language that can exist on its own in either writing or speech.” Or so they tell us.)

Summary: If you’ve never read a copy of S&W some of the humor will be lost on you. (I say “read” because I know damn well lots of people own a copy but haven’t so much as flipped through the pages.) However, that’s no reason to stay away from this parody of one of the best-known guides for writers. The amusement I get from knowing how closely the parody hews to the original in terms of organization pales compared to the amusement I get from the writing itself. It’s not only useful, it’s some fucking funny shit.

[Get yourself a copy.]

8 thoughts on “The Elements of Fucking Style: A fucking book review

  1. ProsWrite December 26, 2014 / 8:43 pm

    I can’t believe I didn’t know about this parody. Genius! S&W is suck a crock of shit, and, as a writing coach, I’m constantly educating people about its deserved place. In their shitter. I’m buying B&H for myself today. And, for the right students/clients, I suspect I’ll recommend The Fucking Elements of Style in place of fucking S&W.

    Thanks for posting.

    Like

    • grammargeddonangel December 26, 2014 / 9:01 pm

      YAY! I’d seen it some time back, but I didn’t bother getting a copy until just a couple of weeks ago. As I said, it does retain some of the prescriptive advice, but it’s expanded on and presented in such a fantastic voice! People who, like Courtney Love, couldn’t get through three pages of the original will devour this fucker. I’m sure of it. And while they’re laughing, they’ll be learning shit. GOOD shit, in my not-the-least-bit-humble opinion.

      Like

  2. Janne January 1, 2015 / 10:51 pm

    I fucking love this. It will be my new go-to for teaching undergrad English. btw, it’s Baker & Hansen (not Barnes). cheers!

    Like

    • grammargeddonangel January 1, 2015 / 10:56 pm

      I am SO fucking mortified. I shall fix that posthaste!

      Like

      • Jean Hay January 9, 2015 / 10:18 am

        You didn’t fix all of them.

        Like

      • grammargeddonangel January 9, 2015 / 12:52 pm

        I’m fixing the fuckers one at a time until everyone’s had a chance to bitch at me for not having fixed them all.

        Yeah. That’s what I’m doing. ::crosses fingers::

        Like

  3. grammargeddonangel February 20, 2015 / 1:14 pm

    Thank you so much, John! That’s great. I’ve spewed bile about the original plenty of times. It’s heartening to see someone else that’s kept the good bits, ditched the shitty bits, and improved the overall usefulness.

    Like

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